Out of all the films I watch, many of which are super thought-provoking and just a little pretentious, I'd never guess that the Hugh Jackman robot-boxing movie I saw at the dollar theater would be the one to prompt me to write a blog post. But I CAN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT OKAY.
Let's talk about "Real Steel." It just came out in theaters about three months ago, so, y'know, if you have a dollar theater in town, you should still be able to go see it. Hugh Jackman plays a terrible, terrible father who road-trips with his son to compete in remote-controlled robot boxing matches; eventually, of course, they form a close father-son bond and win the day against ambiguously evil foreigners.
Other than "this is so ridiculous... but I love it, for some reason," the main thing that kept coming to my mind as I watched "Real Steel" was this: "I wonder how plausible this sort of distopia really is?" And the conclusion I kept coming to was, "in principle, it's basically already here." Let me explain.
The setting of "Real Steel" is a not-too-distant future (2020, I think) in which we don't watch human boxers anymore; we watch robot boxers. Why? Well, basically because we can make robots do way more violent things to each other, so we get to see more carnage, more action, more destruction, without feeling bad about watching it: you don't feel the need to twitch when, for example, a Star Wars Battle Droid gets his head chopped off on the big screen right in front of you, do you?
Think about it. What happens when a human boxer kills another human boxer? If Bruce Willis' character from "Pulp Fiction" is a good example to point to, we can safely assume that those sort of situations always end with stolen motorcycles, John Travolta dead on your toilet, and Ving Rhames barely saved (via katana) from unspeakable perversions. Also there's a very real possibility you might lose your watch, even though Christopher Walken explained in painstaking detail how invaluable it is. So, boxers, DON'T KILL OTHER BOXERS OKAY. But if you're a robot, there aren't really rules. There are no moral or social consequences. No watches are misplaced, no Ving Rhameses are violated. Everyone's happy.
And isn't that part of what technology does to society? Makes us feel emotionally detached from things, so we can justify that which we would otherwise consider monstrous?
Consider for a moment all the gigabytes of copyrighted music or movies you may or may not have pirated (yes, listening to songs on YouTube counts). What's worse: think of all the basic rights the government was recently willing to take away from us in order to combat piracy. The whole SOPA/PIPA thing? It's blatant censorship. Why do senators think it's okay? Well, for the same reason many of us think online piracy is okay. Because we hide behind the Internet. Technology provides a filter for our behavior that makes us feel less ethically responsible.
When you talk to someone in person, it usually feels emotionally heavier than it does over the phone. There's a little barrier between two people over the phone. Even more so with chatting, texting, emails, Facebook posts, etc. The list goes on. The more technology we use, the less connected we feel to the things we're doing. That's why, when you look at the comments section of a YouTube video, you'll often see the most ignorant, hateful, misogynistic, racist, and homophobic words ever. Do those people talk like that in "real life?" Probably not. But why is there a difference? Why do we differentiate "real life" from life through technology? Isn't it all real life? Shouldn't we just be real, all the time?
Back to "Real Steel." I cared about the father-son story. I cared about the characters. I cared about how they interacted with each other and what they learned. But, emotionally speaking, I didn't give a crap about the fighting robots, for the same reason that I didn't give a crap about "Transformers." It's all just eye candy.
And that's the point, isn't it? In the distopian near-future depicted by the film, we let machines do our fighting for us because then we don't have to feel bad about how gladiatorial it all essentially is. And, in a way, that's the society we live in now. We let the Internet spew foul language for us, or at least, we let it take the blame. We let text messages send our hugs and our affection for us. We let Wikipedia and Google make our discoveries and reach our epiphanies for us.
We're incubated by our machines and our gadgets and our computers and our social media.
And at the end of the day it leaves us feeling a little dead inside, doesn't it?
(Until, that is, we stumble upon kitten pictures or something.)